ON Monday a special meeting of the House will be held to mark the 50th anniversary of the women’s suffrage movement. Social Services Minister Melanie Griffin announced that a special feature of the meeting will be a speech that Dr Doris Johnson was not allowed to deliver from the floor of the House by the UBP government in 1959. On Monday, Mrs Griffin, PLP MP for Yamacraw, will read that speech.
In making the announcement yesterday (see story page 3), Mrs Griffin said:
“Hopefully it will be a joint sitting of both the Senate and the House of Assembly where we expect that 50 years later — you will recall, those of you who are aware will know – Dr Johnson, who represented the women’s suffrage movement at the time, was not allowed into the House of Assembly, was not even allowed to the bar to present the petition on behalf of the women.” This, she said, was under a UBP government.
The same thing could have happened if the situation were the same today. The reason, Mrs Griffin can read Doris Johnson’s speech from the floor of the House is because she is a member of the House. Dr Johnson at the time of her attempt to read her speech was not a member of the Assembly — she was what is known in parliamentary language — “a stranger.” And the voice of “strangers” has no place in the Assembly.
Dr Johnson had to get the permission of the Speaker to address the members. The House debated the matter, decided that to grant permission would be to establish a precedent. They voted against it.
If the scenario were the same today, the PLP government might have done the same.
However, today by telling only half of the story, stopping short at crucial points and not explaining the situation of the times — as has been done in today’s report on page 3 — Bahamians will come away with the wrong impression of what really took place during that period.
This is not to say that the women did not have a fight on their hands under a UBP government — when it came to social reform the UBP had to be pushed every inch of the way.
But the irony of the matter is that the real founders of the movement — those who struggled against all odds to win for women their rightful place in society, those who walked the pavements in the heat of the day to secure 9,500 signatures for their petition and eventually got an audience with the Hon. Lennox-Boyd, Secretary of State for the Colonies, have been pushed into the background by someone who was in the United States when the struggle was on. The women — under their founder Mrs Mary Ingraham— got their petition onto the agenda of the House for debate.
That very week, Dr Johnson, who had been in the United States getting an education and who had had nothing to do with the suffragettes, returned home. She saw a political opportunity and she grabbed it. She asked Mrs Ingraham and her committee — Mrs JK Symonette, vice president, and Mrs Eugenia Lockhart, secretary/treasurer– if before Mr Gerald Cash, presented their petition in the House, she could read a speech from the floor. Because she was not a member of the House, MPs refused her request. This is where the story stops if it is being told by the PLP. However, the story did not end there.
Sir Roland Symonette, the Bahamas’ first Premier – a UBP— was determined that the women would be heard and that all members of the House would be present to hear Dr Johnson’s speech.
When the House refused to let Dr Johnson invade the House space to read her speech, Sir Roland left the chamber, walked across to the magistrate’s court and arranged for the court room to be vacated. He then returned to the House and paraded all members across to the court where Dr Johnson delivered her speech.
Later Mrs Ingraham was to regret her committee’s warm embrace of Dr Johnson.
In November, 1975 a ZNS broadcast — by then the station was controlled by the PLP government — credited Dr Johnson and the PLP with winning the vote for women.
As a result Mrs Ingraham wrote a letter to The Tribune to set the record straight. It was an angry letter.
Mrs Ingraham herself was a UBP. Sir Stafford Sands was her representative. But she was so determined to keep her women’s movement free of politics that rather than going to Sir Stafford to push the suffragettes petition through the House, she chose an Independent member — Gerald Cash (later Governor-General Sir Gerald Cash).
Having been in Nassau only a week, the only part that Dr Johnson played with the suffragettes was to read her speech on the day that the House was to debate and pass the petition.
Wrote Mrs Ingraham: “This is the only part Dr Johnson played in the vote for women. And when the motion came for a vote in the House of Assembly not one member of the PLP government, including Prime Minister Pindling voted for the women to vote. Instead every PLP member walked out. Therefore, how can Women’s Week be celebrated by the PLP government?”
In talking about the women one hears little about the valiant support role played by many men. In fact Rufus Ingraham, Mrs Ingraham’s husband was the one who started the ball rolling. Mr Ingraham, in the late forties MP for Crooked Island and Acklins, urged his wife to start the movement. He contended that if women had had the vote he would have won a second term in the House. The spark was lit. The struggle started in 1951 and ended in 1960 when women won the right to vote. The women voted for the first time in 1962, when a UBP government was returned for its final term.
Among the men in the forefront of the support for Mrs Ingraham were Dr Walker, Sir Gerald Cash, Rev Dr HW Brown and Sir Etienne Dupuch, who put the full force of The Tribune behind Mrs Ingraham and her committee.
We hope that on Monday those who are now planning the celebrations will be honest with history. The victory goes to Mrs Mary Ingraham, and her group of women, which included Mrs Mildred Donaldson, and the small, but loyal band of men behind them.
Doris Johnson read a speech at the end of the battle. However she did not fight or win the battle — and so history should not let her walk away with the crown.
We hope that on Monday, Dr Johnson will not be allowed to steal a show that was not hers.